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Driven by the demand for a specialized global education in an open, diverse environment that encourages new perspectives, approaches and methods of discourse, innovative schools that approach learning a little differently are on the rise. The Whittle School & Studios in Washington, D.C.—which is at the leading edge of that growing trend in education construction—is the first of more than 30 international schools backed by charter school pioneer, Chris Whittle.

Seeking to deliver an immersive, worldwide-focused approach to learning, the Whittle School & Studios model focuses on providing an intense technical and cultural education to create truly global citizens. The popularity of this model has continued to expand in recent years alongside an increasingly global economy. The Washington, D.C. campus will house 2,500 K-12 day and boarding students and marks the start of a worldwide expansion to continue over the next several years.


Located in northwest Washington, D.C., in what was formerly the Intelsat building, the Whittle School & Studios project space is a 1 million-square-foot structure with an unusual layout. The building included a number of dated systems, some of which were to remain and others modernized. This renovation encountered challenges in the bridging of old and new in a cohesive, integrated manner that worked accurately and efficiently. Key challenges included the following

Merging "old school” systems with new digital tools. The challenge comprised of bridging these older systems with new technologies, and then in establishing the infrastructure used to regulate these hybrid functions, to be half digitally and half pneumatically controlled.

  • Massive facility space and unusual shape. The building, constructed in the 1980s, had a number of spatial, mechanical, and structural concerns and dated elements on the inside that presented an immediate challenge to turn into functional space for school to open in the fall of 2020.
  • Unforeseen piping issues. Concerns related to the piping and the inability to penetrate the sheer walls with standard piping required a creative solution.
  • Tenant occupying part of the building. Throughout the project, the building had a tenant occupying a portion of the facility, which played a role during the pre-construction/demo phases.
  • Condensed schedule. To execute scope tasks as scheduled, the project involved lots of "trades-stacking” with up to 180 tradespeople on-site at a time, along with a complex phasing process that shifted mid-scope due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To address these challenges, a multi-leveled solution was devised and implemented. From pre-construction to commissioning, each solution was tailored to match the corresponding challenge, while managing an aggressively tight schedule.

  • Merging “old school” systems with new digital tools. In the pre-construction phase, the Shapiro & Duncan team worked with its VDC department to conduct 3D imaging scans of the building’s existing mechanical rooms and garage spaces. These scans were then used as a planning tool during coordination to ensure the successful routing of the new infrastructure without impacting existing to remain systems. The project was value engineered to reduce cost by allowing existing pneumatic systems to remain and blend in seamlessly with the new direct digitally-controlled equipment.
  • Massive facility space and unusual shape. The classroom side of the building was the first priority for renovation work, followed by the dormitory side. The existing space included elaborate systems that were outside the typical, such as several four-to-six-story-high interior atriums with single-pane glass on the top to give an open concept feel.
  • Unforeseen piping issues. Due to the building’s size and atypical shape, many types of structural walls existed in the garage and mechanical room spaces. In order to install the HVAC and plumbing systems as designed, many of these walls had to be penetrated, which required detailed planning and many structural modifications. The project’s design team focused on routing the new piping and ductwork in the least impactful manner possible; however, many lintels and steel supports were added. Piping was also creatively sleeved to run inside the building’s concrete planters to serve the radiant flooring in the atriums.
  • Tenants occupying part of the building. This required a careful balance of online and offline systems to allow work to progress but ensure building management systems, life safety systems, and HVAC and plumbing were constantly functional.
  • Condensed schedule. The project schedule had a BIM duration of five months, and then a construction duration of 18 months, a challenge for a project of this size and complex scope of work.

Creativity and a streamlined approach were essential to the success of the project. The Whittle School & Studios building is an example of how harnessing the power of old and new systems can deliver a functional building and successful result. Going forward, the building’s systems will require proactive maintenance and these, in addition to the unique nature of the facility and its purpose evolve, will give rise to new challenges.

This project is demonstrative of the increasing trend for alternative forms of education, and the rising need in the construction industry for facilities that enable these innovative styles of learning. The Washington, D.C., Whittle School & Studios school sets the tone for the future of global education and sets a trend that will continue to unfold as parents seek culturally and technically immersive approaches and a worldwide focus for their children.


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